Christensen, Arthur

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CHRISTENSEN, ARTHUR (18751945), Danish Orientalist and folklorist. Arthur Emanuel Christensen was born in Copenhagen, where, apart from short periods of study and travel, he spent his life. He studied in Berlin and Göttingen, passing his Studentereksamen in 1893 and obtaining his candidatus magisterii (master's degree) in French, history, and Latin in 1900. During his university years, Christensen was also a fervent student of Persian, Avestan, Arabic, Sanskrit, and Turkish. He studied under the famous Iranologist F. C. Andreas, and, in 1903, he obtained his Ph.D. He became a teacher and journalist, specializing in foreign politics. In 1919, he was appointed professor extraordinarius of Iranian philology at the University of Copenhagen, an office that he held for the rest of his life.

Christensen was a prolific writer who wrote on many aspects of Iranian cultural history, including language (dialect studies), folklore, general history, history of religions, philosophy, and music. His magnum opus, L'empire des Sassanides: Le peuple, l'état, la cour (1907), was written from a religio-historical point of view. Though Christensen elaborated various points in Sassanid history, he was chiefly concerned with chronological and purely historical and legendary elements. Examples of this interest are his Le règne du roi Kawādh I et le communisme masdakite (1925), which deals with the fifth-century communalist reformer Mazdak, and "La légende du sage Buzurjmihr" (Acta Orientalia 8, 1930), which examines one of the strangest figures of the Sassanid tradition.

Of religious life as such Christensen seems to have had no real sense; in his heart he doubted that it was possible to gain secure knowledge of what had once been a living religion in ancient Iran. His intention was to give a complete representation of the Iranian legendary history, the religious and national heritage that the Sassanids took over and attempted to legitimate as their own. He carried out his plan in a series of works of extraordinary importance for Indo-Iranian research in the areas of legend and religion, and for the understanding of legends and folktales in general. Through his endeavors to provide a theoretical and practical foundation for the study of tradition, legend, and myth, Christensen encountered the works of folklorists such as Axel Olrik and C. W. von Sydow, which led him into studies of general folklore, folk psychology, and philosophy. Christensen's foremost contribution to the study of folklore is his Trebrødre- og Tobrødre Stamsagn (1916), which gives a simple and natural psychological explanation of national ancestral legends.

To Avestan studies Christensen brought new understanding and inspiration. Problems concerning the time and environment of Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) and the chronology of the Gatha and the Yasht s were his main concern. The systematic expression of his thought is given in several works: "Quelques notices sur les plus anciennes périodes du Zoroastrisme" (Acta Orientalia 4, 1926, pp. 81115), Études sur le Zoroastrisme de la Perse antique (1928), and Le premier chapitre du Vendidad et l'histoire primitive des tribus iraniennes (1943). These works reveal Christensen as a bold interpreter whose theses would both inspire and irritate his contemporaries and future scholars.


Christensen's Recherches sur les Rubāʿiyāt de ʿOmar H̱ayyām (Heidelberg, 1905) was written as his doctoral thesis; it was published in Danish in 1903. Later, he returned to this topic with Critical Studies in the Rubáiyát of Umar-i-Khayyám (Copenhagen, 1927). His great work, L'empire des Sassanides: Le peuple, l'état, la cour (Copenhagen, 1907) was twice revised and expanded under the title L'Iran sous les Sassanides, 2d ed. (1944; Osnabrück, 1971); it has also been translated into Persian. An examination of the shortcomings of Christensen's magnum opus can be found in Phillipe Gignoux's article "Die religiöse Administration in sasanidischer Zeit: Ein Überblick," Archäologische Mitteilungen aus Iran (suppl. 10, 1983): 253ff.

Among Christensen's works on the legendary history of Iran, the following deserve mention: "Reste von Manu-Legenden in der iranischen Sagenwelt," in Festschrift Friedrich Carl Andreas (Leipzig, 1916), pp. 6369; Les types du premier homme et le premier roi dans l'histoire légendaire des Iraniens, 2 vols. (Stockholm, 19171934); Les Kayanides (Copenhagen, 1931); and Les gestes des rois dans les traditions de l'Iran antique (Paris, 1936). Notable among Christensen's studies of Iranian folklore are the following: Contes persans en langue populaire (Copenhagen, 1918); "Les sots dans la tradition populaire des Persans," Acta Orientalia 1 (1922): 4375; and Essai sur la démonologie iranienne (Copenhagen, 1941) in which he shows how ancient Iranian elements of folk belief survive within the framework of present-day Islam. A significant example of Christensen's work of general folklore and folk psychology is his Politik og masse-moral (Copenhagen, 1911), which was translated by A. Cecil Curtis under the title Politics and Crowd-Morality (London, 1915).

A biographical appreciation of Christensen by Kaj Barr and H. Andersen appears in Oversigt over Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab: Forhandlinger (Copenhagen, 19451946), pp. 65102; it includes a complete bibliography of 327 items. A biographical note by myself and Frank le Sage de Fontenay appears in Dansk biografisk leksikon, 3d ed., vol. 3 (Copenhagen, 1979), pp. 233236.

Jes P. Asmussen (1987)

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